My daughter learned about slavery and the Civil War today in school. We talked about both—mostly slavery—over dinner. Needless to say, it was a heavy conversation—the first of many about race, racism, and the cracks in the foundation of our country. My daughter was, rightly, very shaken up about what we told her.
It made me think of when I first learned about slavery in detail, when I was in high school. I had two American history teachers who covered slavery. One taught us that slavery was wrong, but also taught us that slaves were not beaten and tortured like popular culture had taught us, because—and this is gross—slaves were expensive and slaveowners wouldn’t want to destroy their investment in them. He would have us believe that most slaves were treated fairly well for economic reasons. I don’t think my teacher was a racist, but he drank the racist Kool-Aid: The Lost Cause apologists’ dismissal, “Sure, slavery was bad, but that was in the past. We fixed it. It wasn’t even that bad if you really think about it. Anyway, it’s over now. We don’t have to feel bad about it anymore.”
I remember discussing slavery in his class in the context of moral relativism. (Moral realism was a huge school of thought in the nineties.) We debated how to judge people, like the Founding Fathers, who expressed high ideals about the dignity of humanity while, at the same time, they owned slaves. Is it fair to judge historical figures by today’s standards? These are important discussions to have in a history class. Back then I wanted to believe that these historical figures should be judged only by the standards of their time, both because I wanted them to remain my heroes, and because it seemed unfair to hold them to a standard that they might not have been even aware of.
My other American history teacher stated to the class that slavery is morally wrong, across all time and across all cultures. He minced no words about it: there is no moral relativism when it came to slavery. It’s always wrong to subjugate others. Some things are simply verboten; it doesn’t matter what the society accepts or believes, or what the reasons are behind it. Even if we believe that most slaves were not subjected to frequent physical violence, as the other history teacher claimed, and even if we somehow believe slaver were treated very well, it does not forgive their subjugation, for that is psychological torture and is simply wrong. It doesn’t matter even if society deems such a thing acceptable; people should know innately that certain things are wrong.
His simple lesson was the one that stuck with me. It has colored my thoughts about justice ever since. Moral relativism has certain clear limits. From him I learned that we could judge historical figures by their standards and our own. We don’t have to choose, and it doesn’t even make sense to choose. There are people who created my country who did great and terrible things. To understand them, you have to scrutinize them fully as humans, warts and all.
My parents never talked cogently to me about race when I was growing up. I picked up what they, and everyone else, thought about race slowly and organically. It didn’t help that I grew up in a preponderously white and Catholic area of Connecticut. We, as a region, had some kind of race panic over school desegregation (Scheff v. O’Niell) while I was in high school. I thought then that people’s concern was mostly about differences in class between the cities and the suburbs. Now I know I was naive. White people didn’t want their kids to mix with black kids, just like in Boston. I remember everybody being angry about the issue, but nothing ever happened that affected me or my town’s schools, as far as I know.
It wasn’t until I was an adult that I lived and worked in multi-racial settings. I learned a lot about how similar we all are.